Dec. 23, 2010
BERKELEY - The California volleyball team capped off a record-setting season with the program's highest year-end ranking as the AVCA tabbed the Golden Bears No. 2 in its final poll. When the dust had settled, a squad the other nine Pac-10 coaches selected to finish fifth at the beginning of the season earned its first Pac-10 title and set a new mark for most wins in a single season. The Bears (30-4 overall, 15-3 in the Pac-10) were led to new heights by the AVCA's pick for National Coach of the Year, Rich Feller, and its selection for National Player of the Year, senior setter Carli Lloyd. For the first time in school history, Cal had two first-team All-Americans in the same season in Lloyd and junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey. But the Bears were on point in the classroom as well as they were honored with the Newmark Award for having the highest grade-point average of women's teams at Cal, and the most improved GPA as a team at Cal over a two-year period. Lloyd was named to the Pac-10 All-Academic second team as was sophomore libero Robin Rostratter who also took home the NCAA's volleyball Elite 88 award with the highest GPA amongst competitors at the NCAA championships. Back on the court, the Bears pushed one step further than any other squad in school history and made their first appearance in the national title match before Penn State won its fourth consecutive crown.
Throughout the season, Cal turned heads as it crept from its No. 11 spot in the preseason to a program-high No. 2 ranking by the 10th week. It was hard not to notice as the Bears ripped off the second-longest winning streak in school history with 15 victories from Aug. 27-Oct. 8. Cal didn't drop a set in its first eight contests and had secured the second-best start to a season by the time it defeated UCLA in four sets on Oct. 8. Even when the Bears suffered a loss, they would follow it up with four straight wins, then five straight wins, and then six straight wins. The last streak included five victories in the NCAA tournament in which Cal didn't drop a set.
A roster that included just two seniors and one junior had the good fortune of opening the season at home. Cal hosted UC Santa Barbara and Manhattan College in the Cal Molten Classic on the first weekend of the season and came away with a pair of 3-0 victories. The young Bears endured their first road test as they traveled south to face Gardner-Webb and a No. 25-ranked San Diego team in the USD Tournament. The team added two more sweeps to its record, but none more impressive than a 25-9, 25-8, 25-6 blanking of GWU's Bulldogs. In a much tighter battle, Cal showed the nation that it meant business by topping the Toreros on their own home court.
Back at Haas Pavilion, the Bears came up with four more 3-0 wins. As champions of the Hilton Garden Inn Classic, Cal defeated UC Davis, Seton Hall, and Fresno State in convincing fashion before taking out Cal State Bakersfield on a Tuesday evening in September. The Bears dropped the first set of their match against San Francisco to snap a 24-set winning streak, but roared back to claim a four-set win at War Memorial Gym in the first of two Pac-10/WCC Challenge matches. Cal topped Saint Mary's College in three sets the following night to complete its preseason schedule unscathed at 10-0.
The Bears opened conference play on the road as they visited Arizona and Arizona State. Immediately, Cal's feet were put to the fire as the Wildcats snagged the first two sets in Tucson, Ariz. The third set went the distance before the Bears came up with a 26-24 victory. Cal won the fourth, 25-22, but a major turning point in its season came when the team stood tall and fended off the Arizona onslaught to come away with a 17-15 win in the fifth set. Later that weekend, the Bears took what they learned and applied it to a sweep of Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz.
Cal extended its winning streak to 14 matches as the Bears thumped a highly-touted Oregon squad on Oct. 1. Oregon State was no match the following night, but Cal was in for a major test in its trip to Los Angeles the next weekend. After splitting 25-18 sets to open the match, Cal's defense stiffened up and put up a season-high 18 blocks against the Bruins to earn a four-set victory and secure the school's second-longest winning streak.
Shooting for a tie of the program-best 16-win streak set in 2003, things looked bleak at the Galen Center as USC wrestled the first two sets away from the Bears. But Cal's fight came alive in the third and fourth to force a fifth. Though the team suffered its first defeat of the season, 17-15, in the final frame, the Bears grew immensely from that loss and came back to finish the first half of the league schedule with an 8-1 mark.
The Bears struggled with an unheralded Washington State team, but put the hammer down in a 25-8 fourth-set win to carry momentum into a three-set sweep of a No. 7-ranked Washington squad on Oct. 16. That sharpened focus carried over into the Big Spike on Oct. 22, when the Bears came back from dropping the first set to the second-ranked Cardinal to win, 25-16, 25-22, 25-16, going away. The victory propelled the Bears to a No. 2 ranking of their own and set Cal up in the catbird's seat with the second half of the conference schedule ahead.
Much like they did in the first half of the league schedule, the Bears opened up with two matches on the road. This time, there was no drama as Cal completed sweeps of Oregon State and Oregon on Halloween weekend (Oct. 29-30). It was the first time that the Bears had swept all 12 sets against a pair of opponents since 2003 when they did it to the same two teams.
Though the team had good fortune on the road, it had to face an up-and-coming USC squad at Haas Pavilion on Nov. 5. With revenge on their mind, the Bears suffered just the second loss of their season as the Trojans came away with a four-set win. With a bulls-eye on its back the second time around, Cal faced each team's best shot no matter where the match was played. UCLA came into Haas Pavilion and took a 2-1 lead through three sets before the Bears forced a fifth set with a 25-19 win in the fourth. The fifth was tight, but Cal withstood every blow by the Bruins and earned a 16-14 win to start a four-match streak of victories.
Cal took its last regular-season road trip to the Pacific Northwest and was met by a Husky squad it wanted no part of. Washington hit .619 with 13 kills and no errors to take the first set without a doubt. The Huskies looked strong in the second set as well, but the Bears stayed the course to weather the storm and walked out of Hec Edmundson Pavilion with a four-set win. A three-set sweep of Washington State was the perfect remedy to a tough evening. From there, the Bears returned to the Bay Area with their sights set on their first Pac-10 championship.
It was only poetic that conference rival Stanford stood in Cal's way to a Pac-10 title. In the 72nd Big Spike, a near mirror image of the first meeting took place, only this time, at Haas Pavilion. The Cardinal took a close first set, 28-26, but the Bears flipped the script and turned it into a laughing matter with a 25-17, 25-17, 25-20 trio of scores to sweep the season series over Stanford for the first time since 1979. The victory gave Cal the inside track to the Pac-10 crown heading into its final two regular-season matches.
It may have been the pressures of the expectations that weighed heavily on the shoulders of the Bears, but Arizona State put up a fight like it had nothing to lose and came up with a 26-24 win in the fourth to force a fifth set at Haas Pavilion. Prior to the Sun Devils' 15-7 thrashing of Cal in the final frame, the Bears' only conference defeats came at the hands of a pesky USC team. Still, Cal had a chance to re-write the history books with a win in the season finale. That, the Bears did.
The day after Thanksgiving, Cal hosted Arizona with the conference title on the line and secured a share of its first crown with a four-set win over the Wildcats. The coaches of the Pac-10 honored Feller as the conference coach of the year, and put three Bears on the All Pac-10 team for the first time in school history. Sophomore opposite hitter Correy Johnson made her first appearance on the team as she joined Lloyd and Murrey. Sophomore middle hitters Kat Brown and Shannon Hawari were each given honorable mention while freshman outside hitter Adrienne Gehan was named to the conference all-freshman team.
With a 25-3 overall record and a resume that included 10 wins over top 25 teams, the Bears were awarded the opportunity to host first- and second-round matches in the 2010 NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship. In its school-record ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, Cal drew Western Athletic Conference champion Utah State in the first round and made short work of the Aggies by winning in three sets. North Carolina drew the short straw next, and was trampled in three by a Bear squad on a mission.
As the seventh-seeded team in the tournament, the Bears were dealt the impossible task of returning to Seattle lumped in a bracket with Nebraska, Hawaii, and site host Washington. Nothing could stop the Bears' roll as they took out 10th-seeded Minnesota in three sets to advance to their fourth consecutive NCAA regional championship match. There, the Huskies waited. The Cal-Washington matchup was just the fourth time that the Bears would meet a conference foe in the postseason. The Huskies had every reason and reasonable chance to exact revenge on the Bears, but Cal stormed through Hec Ed in three sets to move into the national championship semifinal for the second time in four years.
The road got no easier in Kansas City, Mo. where the Bears drew a streaking USC squad in the final four. The Women of Troy knew Cal's tendencies and held the two previous victories over the Bears' heads, but Cal had a chip on its shoulder that quickly fell to the ground as it ripped up the Trojans to the tune of a 3-0 sweep. The win propelled the Bears to their first-ever national championship match and secured a school-record 30th victory. It also marked the 15th straight set that Cal had won in the postseason. Only three-time defending champion Penn State stood in the way of Cal's first NCAA crown.
While in Kansas City, the Bears found out that coach Feller had been named the national coach of the year and that Lloyd had been tabbed the national player of the year by the AVCA. The next night, playing in front of a national television audience and a Sprint Center crowd of 14,032, the Bears put it all on the line, but fell short in a three-set loss to the Nittany Lions, 25-20, 27-25, 25-20. The Penn State dynasty stretched itself to four consecutive titles, but the Bears can rest a little more easily knowing that the only team that has been able to defeat them in each of the last four seasons has gone on to win the NCAA title.
Though the season ended abruptly for squad that set so many new records and achieved so much more than had been thought it could, the Bears' future looks bright. The team loses just two seniors this year and will be led by another All-American in 2011 as Murrey steps up to the plate. All of the accolades and honors of 2010 are but marks in a record book. The Pac-12 and 2011 await and the Bears are bright-eyed for the new year to start.